Islanders defeat Flyers and head to conference finals for first time since 1993
By Curtis Rush
Game 7s have a magic all their own. They are where memories are made, bringing out the kid in every NHL player who dared to dream about a winner-take-all moment.
“When you do everything as a young kid, playing on the streets, you’re playing Game 7,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said before his team shut out the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-0, on Saturday, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 27 years. “There’s going to be a hero tonight, no question.”
The hero was defenseman Scott Mayfield, along with the entire Islanders defense, which accounted for two goals and limited the Flyers to 16 shots on goal. The Islanders’ first two goals took the starch out of the Flyers, who had fought gamely to overcome a three-games-to-one series deficit and force Game 7.
Backup goaltender Thomas Greiss also made a heroic stand. He is the second goaltender in franchise history to record a shutout in a Game 7. Glenn Resch did so in the 1975 quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With 6 minutes, 55 seconds to go in regulation, the Flyers lifted goalie Carter Hart for an extra attacker, opening the way for the Islanders’ Anthony Beauvillier to score in an empty net.
The Islanders will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in a best-of-seven series that starts today in Edmonton, Alberta.
Mayfield and the 37-year-old defenseman Andy Greene put the Islanders up, 2-0, and forward Brock Nelson gave the Islanders a three-goal cushion going into the third period.
“Guys work their whole life to get this opportunity,’’ Nelson said after the game. “The fan base is passionate and always talks about the wins in the 80s and the guys that won Cups there. And you can see how much it means to them and the community. Those guys are heroes, and everybody in the room is striving to be part of history like that.”
Mayfield’s first-period goal, on only the Islanders’ second shot of the game, was his first career postseason goal in his 26th game.
It was also redemption for his bad luck in Game 6, in which the Flyers scored the double-overtime winner after Mayfield was left defenseless in his own end without a stick, which had broken moments before.
The decision to start Greiss was a calculated risk for Trotz because Greiss had seen action only twice before this postseason. But he had been solid in one relief effort in Game 2 of the second-round series and again in a Game 4 victory.
The Islanders needed someone to be as dependable as the Flyers’ Hart had been at the other end. The Islanders had lost two straight overtime games, squandering a three-games-to-one series lead, and Semyon Varlamov had allowed five goals on only 31 shots in Game 6 for a substandard .839 save percentage.
Hart was peppered with 53 shots in Game 6 and allowed only four goals, giving him an outstanding .925 save percentage.
But in defense of Varlamov in this series, the Flyers scored a number of goals on shots from the point that deflected in unpredictable angles.
Both the Flyers, who were the top seed in the postseason, and the Islanders entered the game with 10-5 playoff records, with three of the Islanders’ losses coming to Philadelphia in overtime.
The first goal of the game is important because goaltending and defensive hockey win in the playoffs, when the checking becomes tighter.
But until Saturday, the first period had been a dry patch for the Islanders. They had failed to score in the first period through four straight games earlier in the series.
A couple of smart cross-ice passing plays played a key role for the Islanders. Derick Brassard, who had scored twice in two previous games, sent a perfect cross-ice pass to Greene when Hart was caught out of position. Josh Bailey, who has a team-leading 14 assists, was the setup man for Nelson on a well-executed two-on-one that put the Islanders up, 3-0.
The Islanders were facing adversity for the first time in the postseason, and they also had the weight of history on them.
They were trying to match the 1993 Islanders team, coached by Hall of Famer Al Arbour. That team defeated two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 with David Volek playing the hero, scoring the winner in overtime. The Islanders went on to lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the conference finals, four games to one.
This Islanders team is similar to the 1993 Islanders in that neither team was built around individual stars. The Arbour-coached team had good shooters in Ray Ferraro, Steve Thomas and Pierre Turgeon, a hard-hitting defenseman in Darius Kasparaitis, and adequate goaltending from Glenn Healy. These Islanders play a grinding style and depend on tight defensive structure to wear down opponents.
“We are a team,” Trotz said. “We don’t have a lot of those top-end guys. We’re built more as a four-line team. Everybody has to contribute or we can’t have success.”